Gov. Tim Walz or Mayor Jacob Frey should have made this official a long time ago. In view of their inexplicable inaction, and despite a complete lack of political power, I’ll step in.
Unfortunately, my proclamation carries zilch gravitas — it certainly won’t include a fancy hand-lettered document, or a symbolic key to the city — but here goes: I hereby declare Feb. 20 as Isaac Becker Appreciation Day.
Think about it: Few chefs have Becker’s enduring influence on the local dining scene. The proof is in the numbers. Choose any old Saturday night in winter — his busiest season — and Becker feeds upward of 1,400 people at 112 Eatery, Bar La Grassa, Burch Restaurant and his latest, Snack Bar.
For perspective, that number outdistances a sellout concert at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Ordway Concert Hall. That enormous, devoted audience signifies that Becker, a Minneapolis native and James Beard award winner, is a Twin Cities cultural force.
Becker would be the first one to acknowledge that he’s not working alone. The restaurants are close collaborations with his spouse and business partner, front-of-house expert Nancy St. Pierre. The couple recently marked the 15th anniversary of their first enterprise, the groundbreaking 112 Eatery. Truly, where does the time go?
It’s another sign of Becker’s immensely impactful footprint that a number of his disciples are now in charge of their own scene-stealing spots: Daniel Del Prado at Martina and Colita, Erik Sather at Lowry Hill Meats, Dennis Leaf-Smith at Esker Grove.
“I don’t know what kind of a mentor I was,” said Becker. “I may have written the template, but they filled it in. They all had a huge impact on our business. It was difficult when they left us, and they’re all doing amazing things.”
Becker’s track record of astounding feats continues, too.
Witness Snack Bar, which opened in October and represents a new kind of neighborhood restaurant for fortunate North Loopers, a sort of cross between a pizzeria, tapas bar and cocktail haunt.
Becker admits that the pizza, with its tangy natural-rise sourdough crust, doesn’t really follow any strict historical framework, but he can say that it’s not the Neapolitan model practiced at Burch, nor is it strictly the New York slice format that he admires.
“I don’t know what style it is,” he said. “I would never commit to anything, one way or the other, because the purists will come after me.”
But labels are superfluous when the pizza’s this impressive. It’s sold by the pie or the slice, and it’s primarily a design-your-own operation, with nearly 30 well-edited options (marinated octopus, caramelized onions, charred bell peppers, pesto, a fabulous housemade sausage) that rely upon three foundation sauces: white, red and Amatriciana. The last option is the clear winner, a memorably robust marinara fortified with blistered Fresno chiles and ground pancetta.
The by-the-slice option is a revelation. Becker obviously knows his leftovers, because he’s exploiting the equation that dictates when pizza is reheated, everybody’s happy because the crust crisps up. In this case, to a pronounced, highly appealing crackle.
The only downside is price, which starts at $5 per slice and rises as ingredients are piled on, hardly the territory of a bargain slice shop. Then again, the crust — and the toppings — rank well above their slice-shop brethren.
That’s a quibble with Snack Bar, since “snack” can be synonymous with “quick” and “inexpensive.” The kitchen, under chef Kevin Manley (a 112 Eatery vet) is all about the quick turnaround, but pizza and small-plates prices can escalate quickly.
That said, exploration up and down the Italian-influenced menu is highly encouraged.
What’s notable is what isn’t on the menu. No burgers, kale Caesar salads or other well-worn cliches.
Instead, fried artichokes act as the very best remake of a potato chip, ever, with a punchy walnut-chiles-fish sauce pesto. Or there’s eggplant, cut into thin disks, battered and fried, served with a delightful honey-sweetened rosemary sauce. Or a fabulous salad of both thinly shaved pickled cauliflower and florets of roasted cauliflower.
Or leeks, split and roasted until they’re lusciously creamy. Or a golden, Parmesan-infused waffle, draped with a paper-thin, fat-ringed ribbon of prosciutto. Or ultra-pretty breadsticks, or rich duck meatballs.
Larger appetites will be pleased with a salt-crusted rib-eye cap, the long, thin cut rolled into a medallion, the flavor boldly beefy. Another shareable is a whole boneless hen, expertly pan-roasted so the skin is ultra-crispy but the meat remains profoundly juicy.
Snack Bar could be mistaken for a seafood restaurant, and Becker’s sure-footed dishes counteract the heaviness often associated with winter cooking.
The scallops are dreamy. They’re taken to a dark caramel on the stove, finished with butter and lemon and placed on slow-cooked onions seasoned with cinnamon, dried rose petals, pine nuts and harissa, an ageless sweet-savory combination.
Firm, nicely seared red snapper is successfully paired with fennel and toothy white beans. Arctic char makes for a glorious, light-and-bright carpaccio, finished with the classic parsley-lemon-olive oil trinity. Big, meaty prawns are grilled, their natural sweetness accentuated by the acidic bite of a tangy tomato sauce.
Pastry chef Kortni Ringwall’s skillful desserts are as disarmingly uncomplicated as the kitchen’s savory dishes, and include such moderately priced delights as a generous slab of ultra-decadent chocolate terrine and a delicate and not-too-sweet Pavlova with a mellow espresso underbite.
Shea Design of Minneapolis, working closely with St. Pierre, transformed the former Be’wiched Deli into an ideal nighttime destination, contrasting lots of black and burgundy against the brick-and-timber framework of a 118-year-old tractor factory.
The cramped, lively space basically follows a U-shaped setup, with a bar surrounded by tables and a long line of made-for-two banquettes.
It’s one of those rare Twin Cities dining spaces where everyone seems to be nearly on top of everyone else, in a good way (well, until the sound level starts to peak). Be on the lookout for the photograph of a 3-year-old Becker, taken by his uncle John Engel in the early 1970s.
Oh my gosh, I’ve been neglecting my favorite dish. It’s the sole pasta item on the menu — pasta-centric Bar La Grassa is directly next door, after all — and it’s a doozy: a bowl of thick, hand-formed ropes, dressed with crunchy pistachios and a big dollop of ricotta, and utterly irresistible.
“I’ve always wanted to do that noodle, but it’s a lot of work,” said Becker. “I made the mistake of thinking that, since this is not a pasta place, we wouldn’t sell much. Last Saturday, we sold 60, and it’s hard to keep up. But I love it. I’d eat it with butter and Parmesan. I can’t get enough of it.”
Same here. It’s called pici, and it’s not only my new favorite pasta, it’s my new favorite word, at a favorite new hangout.